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Habits - Part Two

Our old habits are the way we do just about everything in our lives and last month we detailed what habits are. 

This month, let’s drill down into how your brain forms habits and how they can be enormously helpful for functioning in this complex world, or incredibly dangerous if we let sloppy ones take over. Basically, we make habits with practice and repetition of the same actions and store them in our “feel good” brain centers. The fact that we store that information in those areas of the brain is important since it helps understand why it’s so hard to break bad habits. Once habits are locked in, those comfortable routines become our brains’ very own “cockpit automation system.” That means we don’t have to think much about how to do something once we file it away. This kind of automation defines how we become “expert pilots” and lets us do what were initially complex and cognitively demanding activities automatically with minimal effort or cognitive load.

The key to forming these automatic “good habits” is to learn how to do things correctly from the start and continuously practice them correctly every time we drill. Cementing in good habits for all the complexities of flying airplanes means getting with the right instructors, practicing the right things with them or another experienced pilot and demanding of yourself that you never take shortcuts or get sloppy in your practice drills. It also helps to visualize the right way to do it from the very beginning and force yourself to stick to that game plan. What you get from all those hours of practice are three distinct changes in behavior: First, and most important, your skill level improves. Second, it allows you to select the appropriate actions quickly without much deliberation. Third, you can carry out the whole process of a habitual action a lot faster for just that same reason; you don’t have to think about it each time. Your brain likes this idea since habit formation avoids repeating the same mental exercises in order to get the same outcome; your brain considers that needlessly time-consuming. You just have to remember what you did the last time that situation came up and do the same thing again.

Understanding exactly how our brains do all of this is the next step on the way to good habit formation. Last year two neurologists at Johns Hopkins Medical School published a great review of our current understanding of this process of making complicated actions purely habitual. During all those hours of repetition your brain was “chunking” the various steps of procedures into one smooth process. You brain groups (“chunks,” in their words) all the steps, for example, of making the perfect greased landing, into one envelope that you can then open up and do the same way every time you’re about to set your airplane down on the runway. The Johns Hopkins investigators make an analogy to how your brain works this intricate process, comparing it to how a computer operating system does it, and call it “caching.” The “cache” in a computer is a shortcut to a reserved memory space set aside for high-speed and very accurate data retrieval. Habits eliminate time-consuming calculations by using these cached chunks of actions that we can select quickly. Simply “looking up” the solution in a “cached memory file” frees up the resources that would have been required to compute the solution each time you make a landing and that smooths out and speeds up the whole process of performing the task.

This background also sheds some light on how we get into bad habits. One way we form bad habits is repeatedly doing it wrong, letting yourself get careless or imprecise. Once you chunk up and store those skills incorrectly in your head’s “cache” space, you will repeat the incorrect actions each time. The way to avoid this habit trap is to fly with a CFI or a very critical and experienced pilot in the right seat who won’t be afraid to tell you bluntly that you’ve got something wrong, instruct you on how to do it right, and repeatedly drill it into your head until you get it down pat. Another way to get into bad habits is to mess up the correct steps you originally “cached” by letting the information degrade over time. To fix this, you don’t need to make a new habit so much as return to the old one that worked. One thing psychologists recommend to undo this bad habit trend is to change environments, something they call “habit discontinuity effect.” Without familiar habit cues, you force your brain to rethink the decisions about how to act when faced with an event trigger (making that perfect landing). So shake up your decision tree to disrupt the old habit cues, change up check pilots or CFIs to get a new angle on things, or fly in different flight or weather environments or even a different airplane. Then demand of yourself the right actions and practice it all over again until you have “re-chunked” the right steps to replace the sloppy ones that have found their way into your routine.

Another issue can come up during practice that sets the stage for other problems. The intent of training to form habits means that we form a rigid, rote way to accomplish our goal. But this gets locked in at the expense of more generalized knowledge that goes beyond the trained sets of skills. So there’s a kind of trade-off between efficient habitual performance and the flexibility that might be needed if things in the airplane change. This is important because safety in the air requires not just good habits but adaptive behavior that allows us to change our response if conditions change in mid-flight. Behavioral flexibility is the opposite of habitual behavior and requires a real delicate balance and willingness to look outside the “cache” for a solution if things are different. Be on guard and try not to let your habit skills become so task-specific that you lose the flexibility needed to adapt to any changes. For example, imagine that after getting your “cache” out to land there is a sudden wind shift and you have to reverse to the opposite runway, or maybe another airplane pulled out onto your runway like an incursion that the FAA is trying so hard to prevent and you can’t land at all. Getting locked into your old “cached” habit to force the landing out of a bad, ill-advised approach is a common cause of GA fatalities according to the AOPA’s Nall Report.

Flight safety requires pitting strongly held habitual behavior against the inflexibility they can instill in our heads. The answer to this problem, especially in a time crunch like being all set up to land and close to the ground, isn’t always easy. We talked about this problem in a different way a few months back in the post onFingerprints of Error covering “intention bias” and the tendency to force round pegs into square holes. These kinds of errors happen because your brain will often take the easy (“cached” habit) solution even if it doesn’t fit your current predicament all that well (wind shift, runway incursion). Our Johns Hopkins friends comment that if the task changes in a way that requires different actions, the information in the cache is now not useful or outdated and you get into trouble by using it anyway. That’s a nice way of saying we have been trapped by the rigidity of our own habit formation. This kind of inflexibility is a real issue with habits – it’s how I reached out to shake hands with an old friend in the coronavirus era. I used a routine behavior pattern to accomplish my goal of a friendly greeting, but what I had “cached” to make that happen no longer applied.

Psychologists say that an effective way to shift out of an overly rigid habit pattern is to retain the old cues and rewards (smooth landings, pleasant greetings) but focus on changing the routine. Break up the habit routine chunks that were originally “cached” back into the individual steps and change one little part at a time till you get back into a smooth routine. Set up your own personal “red line” that you just won’t cross or at least never let yourself cross again, and never fail twice at the same step in your task. Breaking the habit of forcing a landing out of a compromised approach might be drawing your own “red line” at 1,000 feet AGL. Force yourself to never go below that to land unless your airplane is perfectly configured with the gear, power, speed, and approach slope you need for a safe landing. With everything stable as you get close to the ground you also have the flexibility to break off the approach and go around if there is a sudden change in front of you. Your personal “red line” empowers you with the discipline to break up the rigidity of those old ways and substitute a flexible and improved way. So now when you see an old friend and want to say hi, keep that cue and the reward of a friendly greeting, but force yourself to keep your hand down and substitute your elbow to avoid those dirty looks telling you that you violated a new social taboo.

Kenneth Stahl, MD, FACS

Kenneth Stahl, MD, FACS is an expert in adapting principles of aviation safety to the healthcare industry for patient safety. He also writes and teaches pilot safety principles and error avoidance. He is triple board-certified in cardiac surgery, trauma surgery, surgical critical care and general surgery and holds an active ATP certification and a 20-year member of the AOPA. Dr. Stahl practices surgery full-time and is Healthcare Division President for Convergent Performance, an industry leader in teamwork, checklist and accountability training and consulting. He can be reached at [email protected]

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